Alvin Yapan, a professor of Philippine literature at the Ateneo, has emerged over the last few years as a filmmaker with promising talent and a unique creative vision. Before he ventured into filmmaking, he was an award-winning fictionist. The first film he made was Rolyo (2007), a short feature about a farming family in Bicol (where he hails) that uses film negatives to scare away birds from the rice fields. He then directed two feature-length entries for Cinemalaya: Huling Pasada (2008, co-directed with Paul Sta. Ana), a mystery-drama about a novelist whose life is paralleled with those of her fictional characters, and Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe (2009), about a battered wife who finds solace from all her misery in an unlikely source: a non-human creature that is a common figure in Philippine folklore. Yapan then went on to film Gayuma (2011), a coming-of-age yarn set in Bicol and featured the Sto. Niño as a key character, as well as Panibugho (2011), a short film about a rural painter and his muse – an enigmatic river swan. Except for Huling Pasada (which was written by his co-director), Yapan wrote all of the above-mentioned films.
His latest feature, Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (2011), returns to the urban setting of Huling Pasada to tell the story of two university boys in Manila, Marlon (Paulo Avelino) and Dennis (Rocco Nacino), who catch the eye of their middle-aged literature professor Karen (Jean Garcia). Aside from teaching literature, Karen also teaches dance on the side, in a studio she rents, where Dennis is a teaching assistant. Marlon harbours a crush on Karen, and he reckons one way to get close to her is to enrol in one of her dance classes. He then enlists Dennis to teach him the basics so he would not be embarrassed during dance lessons with Karen.
What follows is a love triangle so delectably charming that you would not want the movie to end. Unfortunately it does, and abruptly so, with the movie clocking in at a brisk 75 minutes. Once the film credits roll, you will be transfixed on your seat, figuring out how to process the film and immediately wishing to see the film all over again. The feeling you get after watching it is the same one you get after reading a good poem. You remember the cadence, the breaths, the pauses, the silences. You remember the sound of your soul stirring, sighing of satisfaction.
A big part of the movie’s appeal is Yapan’s idea to use poems written by Filipino feminists, set to music to accompany the dance routines in the movie, as well as to move the narrative forward. Listening to the songs makes you wish that all pop songs were as poetic, or, conversely, that all poems be turned into songs.
The opening scene finds Karen in front of a university class reading aloud Ruth Mabanglo’s “Kinukumutan Ka ng Aking Titig” with the following first stanza:
“Kinukumutan ka ng aking titig – [“I cover you with my gaze
Isang siyudad ng pag-ibig: A city of love
Dilim na binabagtas ng mga hipo, Darkness traversed with touches
Liwanag na kaakibat ng mga pangako. Light accompanied by promises
Nililiyo ako ng mga haplos, I reel around with caresses
Binubura ng mga alaala. Memories wipe me out
Ay, tila ugat akong nabubunot, Oh, I am a root ripped out
Mga mata’y nag-uulap.” Eyes clouding over.”]
While these lines are being read, the film cuts to scenes that introduce Karen as a dance instructor (performing a solo in the studio as her students look on), Marlon as her smitten student (stalking Karen in his car as she rides a jeep, gazing at her as she walks by a campus corridor), and Dennis as Marlon’s classmate and Karen’s dancing assistant instructor (who notices Marlon gazing at Karen).
Yapan skilfully utilizes the said poem and those of other feminist poets (Rebecca Añonuevo, Ophelia Dimalanta, Merlinda Bobis, Joi Barrios, and Benilda Santos) to tell what essentially is a young man’s coming-of-age story. When Marlon decides to hire Dennis to teach him dance lessons in private, he did not realize this would be the beginning of his sexual maturity. The first dance tutorial is fraught with unease and awkwardness. Since pair dances are always assumed to be performed by two people of the opposite sex: one is expected to lead (the more masculine, dominant) while the other expects to be led (the more feminine, passive), two dancers of the same sex would be tantamount to dancing with two left feet.
Marlon, being the non-dancer, has to first assume the feminine part. With not a little hesitation, he asks Dennis what would turn out to be a loaded question: “Kailangan ba may lalaki at may babae?” (“Should it always involve a man and a woman?”) It seems like an innocuous question to ask, especially in the context of dance. But a few sequences later, one will realize that Marlon might have asked the same question in the context of relationships in general: does love have to be shared only by two people of the opposite sex? In the very last scene, Marlon himself will answer that question.
In fact, that seemingly off-the-cuff query is not the only one that appears to have a deeper meaning. In the scene where Marlon first rehearses with a female dance student in the studio, with the camera focused on Dennis as he was changing into dance shoes, Marlon asks his partner, “Kailangan ba talaga straight?” (“Does it have to be straight?”), perhaps referring to the position of his arm or leg during a certain step. But, as with the first question, it is an ironic one, perchance thrown at a heteronormative society by someone who is on the cusp of discovering the fluidity of his own sexuality.
When Karen embarrasses Marlon in front of the whole dance class by telling him he did not have to impress her by asking Dennis to teach him in advance, it makes him furious at Dennis for breaking his trust, when in fact it was Karen who figured everything out by herself. To patch things up, she hires the two students to help her in choreographing a cotillion and, later, to audition for a play she’s directing, Humadapnon, an Ilonggo epic. This gives the boys plenty of opportunity to bond by rehearsing and interpreting the meaning of their audition piece: Benilda Santos’ “Ang Sabi Ko sa Iyo”, a sexually suggestive and ambiguous poem set to music.
Karen is so impressed by their audition that she casts both as leads: Marlon as Humadapnon, a proud king, and Dennis as Sunmasakay, a beautiful woman masquerading as a man to save Humadapnon from the hordes of women tempting him to marry them. During rehearsals, Karen asks the two what the deal is with them, aware that the two share a special relationship. Marlon, still in denial of his feelings, brushes aside her question and confides that he really was after her. Karen, of course, sees through everything, and tells him that he does not have to overthink things, that he, in essence, should not walk back to the beginning of the tunnel just because he thinks that the flicker of light he sees at the end would be too real, too much, to handle. In the next scene, to prove to Dennis (but more to himself) that there is really nothing going on between them, Marlon pays Dennis for his services, which the latter naturally rejects.
Literary critic René Girard argues that desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person for this same object. In the film, the object is Karen. Although Dennis does not romantically desire Karen, Marlon desires Dennis’ closeness to her, so he uses him as a mediator so that he, too, will be as close to Karen. Through the object, one is drawn to the mediator. In fact, it is the mediator who is sought all along.
It is only in the final performance of the play, as Humadapnon and Sunmasakay are locked in a final embrace, where Marlon would acknowledge his true feelings for Dennis, signified by that enigmatic teardrop that only Dennis can see. And that teardrop indeed is a waterfall. It would convey a message better than any word could.
René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966.